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Trip Report Tokyo: Belated Trip Report

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I spent nine days in Tokyo in November 2013, and have been seriously malingering in preparing a trip report! Tokyo was lovely, though I encountered other challenges along the way. As will be disclosed soon enough.

Four days: SHITAMACHI district (Ryokan Sawanoya)

This was an excellent introduction to Japan! Shitamachi is very slow placed, and very local. It was hard to imagine that you were in the middle of a huge metropolis. There were a lot of temples in the neighborhood, and tons of small shops and restaurants. Really, really small restaurants.

The Ryokan was nice. It was great relaxing in the onsen at the end of the day.

Shitamachi closes up early, and most restaurants closed by 8 pm. My traveling partner insisted (despite all evidence to the contrary) that no one eats in Tokyo before 11 pm, so we spend lots of nights walking around looking for an open place to eat. And so we missed out on all the cool looking little places. Sigh.

UENO PARK was an easy walk, and was full of color at the end of November. It was absolutely beautiful, and we would plan our days to end at Ueno Station and slowly wind our way back to the Ryokan through the park and the back streets of Shitamachi. There were enough museums and temples in the park to occupy a couple of lazy sunny days.

We never did figure out how the Japanese numbered their streets, and so got lost a lot.

The market near Ueno wasn't special, except that we stumbled on a stand serving a variety of fresh oysters and other seafoods. We spent an afternoon there drinking sake and trying everything. It was one of the best meals we had.

We took a day trip to KAMAKURA, which was also fantastic. It took about an hour by train to reach the first temple (Engaku-ji), and from there it's an easy to follow path past the other temples and into town. You need to take a bus to reach the Daibatsu (Great Buddha), but it's well worth it. It was beautiful at dusk, and there weren't that many tourists later in the day.

Kamakura is famous for it's vegetarian cuisine, but we never tried it as my t.p. still insisted that no one eats before 11 pm ... and was wrong about that again.

Overnight: HAKONE

The circuit (trams, narrow gauge trains, pirate ships, cable cars) is fun, and we were lucky to get amazing views of Mt. Fuji. We had planned on going to an onsen, but the proprietor wouldn't let us in as the t.p. had been drinking. We spent the night in the mountains at the Fujiya Hotel, a historic and very atmospheric place. I tried to make reservations for the traditional kaiseki meal, but it was booked months in advance.

Four nights: SHINJUKU (Hotel Listel Shinjuku)

This was a basic business hotel, and it was nice to have an affordable option so close to all the action. It was a good base from which to explore more of Tokyo.

MEIJI SHRINE - We went on a Sunday, and it was full of wedding processions, youth doing cosplay as royalty (I think?), and children dressed up for religious ceremonies. It was fascinating, and prime people watching. And for photography! People seemed happy to pose for photos, and I saw locals asking for photos too.

SHIBUYA and HARAJUKU - It was great people watching,and fun to walk around in. We saw a handful of Gothic Lolita cosplayers, but not as many as I'd thought. I was more impressed at the modern styles. I think every woman we saw in Shibuya was dressed like a super model.

AKHIBARA - Electronics district. I was expecting to see ultra-modern electronics. Instead it was mostly sub-Radio Shack style products. We kept exploring, thinking that we must be missing something.

SHINJUKU NI-CHOME - One of the densest gay neighborhoods in the world, though most places were only big enough to hold a dozen people. There were only a handful of bars that felt gaijin friendly, and overall it was a very, very young crowd - who drink amazing quantities of alcohol. The streets were full of kids half passed out on the sidewalks at night. The restaurants were friendly, and we had some good sushi at one place. I got brave and went to 24 Kaikan, a gay onsen. It was huge, and totally unlike any gay sauna I've seen elsewhere. No one seemed to mind that I was there, though I was one of only two gaijin that night (out of the 100s of visitors).

FUGU - Fugu is mostly farm raised now, so it is 1) affordable to the middle class, 2) available year-round, and 3) safe. You can still get the dangerous variety at some high-priced places, but I was fine with the safe version! It's a fun meal, as they bring out different cuts of the fish over the course of the evening. The traditional drink for a fugu meal is hirazake - hot sake with a smoked fugu fin in it. It has an interesting, complex aroma - I would highly recommend this. We ate at Torafugutei.

SHINJUKU STATION - This must be one of the engineering wonders of the world. I used the HYPERDIA iphone app to map out our routes ahead of time, and then saved snapshots it to my photo album so that we could reference it once in the station. This worked out very well.

SEVEN-ELEVEN - Had excellent Japanese snacks, buns and kebabs with a variety of flavors. This will make you feel like a local! Japanese friends all told us to eat at 7-11; Western friends were all horrified at the idea.

NAKAMEGURO - We went to visit a college friend who lives here. It is pretty cool and hip ... we spent the whole night in a small cafe filled with artists, musicians, chefs, and working class Japanese. Everyone knew each other; I had the impression that this is what they do every night. However, I'm not sure what the neighborhood would offer to the casual visitor; it was cool for us because we were part of the family, so to speak.

SHINJUKU SHOPPING - I hate shopping, and even I was impressed with the huge department stores here. The Christmas displays were brilliant, and the food courts in the basement were to die for. And affordable - I stocked up on gifts for the office.

KINOKUNIYA BOOKSTORE - Bibliophile heaven.


Random thoughts:

GOOGLE MAPS - So very very useful. Same with the metro, I would map out a route and then same a shot in my photo album for reference.

LANGUAGE - I spent three months working through some courses (Michel Thomas, Pimsleur I and II, and Living Language (finished half the course). This helped immensely, even though I could only handle basic polite greetings, asking directions, and ordering food and drinks (which I got wrong half the time, but I always ate / drank what they gave me).

I've heard Japanese described as "an easy language that takes a long time to learn," and I couldn't agree more. It really wasn't that hard; you can learn the basic structure in a few months. The problem is that there are so many layers of politeness and register that it would take years to move beyond the basic structure, or to master it.

TAXIS - Are only really used for travel within the neighborhood. Take the subway as close to your destination as you can.

LOST IN TRANSLATION - I never got the 'Japan is exotic and impenetrable' vibe. People were super pleasant and helpful, and for the most part straight-forward.

Things we missed: a good kaiseki meal, an overnight in Nikko (we had planned it, but I cancelled it in frustration with my t.p.), and a formal sushi meal ... all for next time, I guess!

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